Day of the Animals / Something Is Out There (1976) -***½
In most animal attack movies, “animal” is distinctly singular: one shark, one bear, one crocodile, etc. And even when the killer critters come in numbers, like in Piranha or Kingdom of the Spiders, there’s usually just one species exacting Mother Nature’s Revenge. That’s one reason why Day of the Animals stands out; so far as I’ve seen, only Frogs casts a wider taxonomical net in recruiting its army of eco-vengeance. Day of the Animals is also distinctive for owing nothing to the template of Jaws. If anything, it takes its structural cues from the Irwin Allen disaster movies, with its oversized cast familiar B- and C-listers and its low-grade authority figure striving mightily to shepherd a group of increasingly restive civilians who seem determined to be their own worst enemies. But more than anything, what makes Day of the Animals special is that of all the animal attack movies in the world, it’s the William Girdler-iest. When Girdler made Grizzly at the beginning of the year, he was constrained by an overly literal interpretation of his “Jaws in the woods” mission. Here, he lets it all hang out. Here, he’s in full-on Manitou mode.
There’s just a touch of educational value in Day of the Animals, too— I had no idea that the depletion of the ozone layer by chlorofluorocarbons had been recognized as a problem as early as the mid-1970’s. The resulting increase in ambient levels of ultraviolet radiation is the movie’s explanation for its unusual wildlife behavior, which is fairly ridiculous. Tanning booths, after all, don’t typically send their users into a homicidal fury. Still, it would surely have had the benefit of novelty in 1976. Somewhat less novel are the state park in the mountains where Day of the Animals is set, and the positioning of park ranger Steve Buckner (Christopher George, from Cruise into Terror and The Gates of Hell) as the hero. For all practical purposes, George is playing his old Grizzly character again, so it’s no wonder that Day of the Animals was often mistaken for a sequel to that film.
Anyway, Buckner has his hands full even before the unobstructed UV rays start driving the local pumas, wolves, and turkey vultures crazy, because he’s about to lead a tour group of would-be Jungle Jims on a two-week survival hike in the park. The campers will bring no weapons and only a minimum of food and water along with them, living off the land to the furthest extent possible until the ranger station’s helicopters come to collect them at a prearranged rendezvous point. It’s a pretty rigorous undertaking, and that being so, I’m really quite mystified by the makeup of Buckner’s entourage. Paul Jensen (Leslie Nielsen, of Creepshow and Hauser’s Memory) and Daniel Santee (Michael Ansara, from Dear, Dead Delilah and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) I can see wanting to do something like this. Jensen is a big-city advertising executive, and exactly the sort of white-collar macho asshole that naturally gravitates toward conspicuous displays of overcompensation. Santee, meanwhile, is an Indian who has dedicated his whole adult life to getting back in touch with his roots after being raised by a man who was deeply embarrassed of them. Professor Taylor MacGregor (Richard Jaeckel, of Latitude Zero and The Green Slime) might also be a halfway plausible mark, assuming that whatever branch of science he practices involves a lot of fieldwork. But the others? Not so much. Terry Marsh (Lynda Day George, from Pieces and Mortuary) is a TV news anchorwoman, and hasn’t a rugged cell in her skinny, blonde body. Shirley Goodwyn (Ruth Roman, of The Baby and The Killing Kind) is like a refugee from an especially irritating Neil Simon play, and was apparently put up to this venture somehow by her pubescent son, John (Bobby Porter, who had small parts in Battle for the Planet of the Apes and Night of the Comet). Bob Denning (Andrew Stevens, from Massacre at Central High and The Fury) and Beth Hughes (Kathleen Bracken, of Time Travelers) are a couple of hippyish kids who apparently had nothing better to do with their summer. Roy Moore (Paul Mantee, from Robinson Crusoe on Mars and Lurking Fear) is an ex-pro athlete who is fucking dying of fucking cancer! But the grand prize for poor vacation choice among this lot goes to Frank Young (Jon Cedar, of Foxy Brown and The Manitou) and his wife, Mandy (Susan Backlinie, in a remarkably apt step up from her role as the doomed skinny-dipper in the prologue to Jaws), who have inexplicably decided that spending two weeks on the side of a mountain without proper food, shelter, or showers will be just the thing to repair their failing marriage. Buckner’s fellow ranger, Tucker (Walter Barnes, of Captain Sindbad and Pigs), is fully justified in asking him what the hell he’s thinking leading this pack of ninnies into the woods.
The campers’ first encounter with UV-maddened wildlife does no one any actual harm, but it gets everybody pretty freaked out when representatives of seemingly every raptor species in the local ecosystem— various types of hawk, at least two distinct forms of vulture, and even a great horned owl which should damn well be in bed at this hour— surround them from the treetops and spend several minutes swooping and shrieking at them in an eerily coordinated manner. Even birds of prey of the same species aren’t supposed to do that, and although the latter point is lost on most of the hikers, knowing the forest and its creatures is Buckner’s business, and Santee has been on his “back to the ways of my ancestors” kick long enough to recognize woodland weirdness when he sees it. Even Buckner and Santee aren’t prepared for what happens that night, though, when a pack of wolves attack the campsite. Some aggressively wielded torches suffice to drive the animals away after a short, sharp struggle, but Mandy is injured badly enough to need medical attention beyond the contents of a portable first-aid kit. She and her husband turn around to make for the nearest ranger station at first light, and quickly discover, once it’s just the two of them, how easy the hawks and vultures let everyone off the day before. Meanwhile, pumas, wolves, and bears start trailing the main party ever more closely, making it visibly too risky to fan out and forage— and when Buckner leads his campers to the emergency food dump halfway up the mountain, it turns out the animals got to it first. That discovery provokes a mutiny among the hikers, with Bob, Beth, Shirley, and John (the latter unwillingly following his mother) taking off under Jensen’s leadership, while Terry, Roy, Santee, and the professor stick with Buckner. We all know what a good idea splitting up usually is in a horror movie, but the mutineers will find that Jensen is every bit as big a threat as the newly homicidal woodland critters. And back in town, Tucker and his neighbors are discovering that it isn’t just the wild animals up in the park that have gone berserk.
I came to a realization watching Day of the Animals: in the 70’s, even acting came in earth tones. Most of the performances here are various shades of brown— which is to say they’re drab and shitty— and that unfortunately includes those of nominal stars Christopher and Lynda Day George. But all that cocoa, fawn, and walnut adds up to a background against which the cast-members with stronger personalities can stand out fit to strain the eyes. Richard Jaeckel is like a blot of avocado, bold and cheery in a tasteless sort of way. Ruth Roman is the cast’s harvest gold, muted and bilious, yet somehow a patch of brightness just the same. And Leslie Nielsen is surely the burnt orange in this ghastly 70’s color scheme, an attention-seizing streak of dazzling, vibrant vulgarity. Nielsen really makes this movie. Right from the beginning, Jensen is a cartoonishly colossal jerk in pretty much every way the terms of the story would permit, and Nielsen brings every bit of his TV guest-star baddie experience to bear on the part. And speaking of bears, some unusually cooperative movies have a specific scene that you can point to and say, “Here. If this strikes your fancy, then it’s worth your while to see the whole thing.” In Day of the Animals, that scene takes the form of a shirtless Nielsen, his middle-aged body just beginning to get truly serious about sag and stretch marks, wrestling a bear in a thunderstorm after delivering a barely sensical sermon on the subject of “Melville’s God.” Reading that sentence, you know exactly what I meant about burnt orange a moment ago— and you also know perfectly well whether Day of the Animals is for you. I could bring up the weird dissonance between the defiantly goofy subject matter and the unwonted technical skill and maturity with which Girdler mostly presents it. I could mention other highlights, like Mandy Young’s bluescreen death-plunge into a ravine amid a swarm of birds flying in conspicuously the wrong orientation, or Tucker’s inglorious battle with the rats that have placed his kitchen table under occupation. I could extol the “virtues” of an ending that smacks of nobody really knowing how to wrap up the story once the decision had been made to spare at least some of the characters, rather than going full 70’s bummer. None of that would matter much, though. This is the one where Leslie Nielsen wrestles a bear half-naked in the rain and blathers about Melville’s God, and that really does tell you everything you need to know.
This review is part of a more or less self-explanatory B-Masters roundtable. It’s called “Teeth and Tentacles,” and it’s all about things that have teeth and/or tentacles. Click the link below to read my colleagues’ contributions.